Tom Dorrance: More Than a Horseman

Written by Jim Overstreet
Photo by Heather Hafleigh

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.13

The Flying D Ranch cowboys were branding calves when Tom Dorrance drove up. Jim Thompson, a teenager at the time, still vividly recalls the day. Tom had visited only briefly when Jack Shell offered up his horse so that Tom could rope a few calves. “No,” Tom said. “I don’t want to take your horse.” Then, pointing to a pair of horses in a nearby pasture, he asked, “What are those horses over there?”

Someone replied, “They’re not broke.”

“Well,” Tom wanted to know, “would it be all right if I rode one of them?”

Tom drove to the other pasture and returned in about thirty minutes on horseback. Cows and calves milled around bawling. Cowboys on horses darted into the herd, swinging their ropes, and then came out briskly with a calf behind. Sometimes the calves dragged resignedly; other times they bucked and ran on the end of the rope. The branding fire roared. As the riders came close, wrestlers swarmed to the calves. Other men carrying hot branding irons hurried back and forth, ducking between horses and ropes. Tom rode into this chaotic scene on an unbroke horse and proceeded to rope one calf after another and drag it to the fire. Forty years later, Thompson still shakes his head in unbelieving wonder as he tells the story.

Tom Dorrance was the most remarkable man I ever met. Quiet and self-effacing, he had no desire to be famous or rich and most certainly had no instinct for self-promotion. He had no ego, in the conventional sense. Yet he possessed a genius with horses that was so extraordinary that people sought him out. As mysterious as his power with horses was, at least some of the important things Tom knew could be learned by other people. By the time that he died in June of this year, the seeds he sowed had already created a revolution in horsemanship—much to the benefit of horses and riders everywhere.

Although the revolution is far from universal, during the last thirty years there has been widespread change in the way horses are broke and trained in this country, particularly in the West. Traditional horsemanship is to a large degree based on forceful domination of the horse by the human. The new horsemanship instead makes a more rational use of the horse’s instincts to create a unity in purpose between the horse and rider. Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman and a host of other round-pen clinicians have spread this new gospel of horse breaking. Hundreds of ranch cowboys use the methods religiously. Doug Jordan, Joe Wolter, and the late Greg Ward, among others, who use these methods, have had success in the showring.

That you can trace this revolution in horsemanship to a single man is truly remarkable. It seems far too much to come in one leap or from one person. Tom credited an Oregon neighbor, Cliff Wade, with helping learn to work with horses. However, Tom’s approach changed dramatically and continually improved over the years. I suspect that he spent the biggest part of a lifetime learning to trust his own inclinations and understanding his own special insights and, at the same time, unlearning most of what other people taught him. One of my strongest impressions of Tom is that he possessed an immense intellect coupled with a kind of creativity that allowed him to see almost everything with fresh eyes. If he had been born into different circumstances, he might have been an Einstein, a Galileo or maybe an Edison. Later, I’ll make an argument that for Tom, and those of us who appreciate him, what he really had, and sometimes offered to us, was much more than “mere” horsemanship. Still, that he primarily applied such intellectual power to horses seems almost a waste of talent.

Joe Wolter and I were talking about Tom a few years ago. Joe is both a student of Tom’s and an outstanding horseman. He and I agreed that the creative way Tom often solved horse problems and the connections he saw between things were sometimes baffling. For example, if you were having trouble turning your horse to the right smoothly, he might have you ride a series of circles, probably at a walk, but maybe trotting or loping, and then have you do a backing exercise or maybe something else. After doing these other things for ten minutes or an hour, he would finally ask you to try to turn your horse to the right again. I was always slightly surprised to find that the problem had disappeared, even though we had never worked on it directly. This example is at least partly fictitious; it’s hard to tell exactly how Tom might actually approach any particular problem and his logic might not be apparent, but in the end, the problem would be gone.

Tom was the sixth of eight children and the youngest son. He grew up on a ranch near Joseph, Oregon. From everything I’ve heard or read, Tom’s father and all his brothers were good horsemen. Tom’s older brother, Bill Dorrance, was particularly well known for his horsemanship. Once, when Bill was giving me a tour of his tack room and telling me stories, he mentioned a horse that they threw down and tied; he paused, looked seriously at me, and said, “I know that sounds rough. But that’s the way we did it before Tom got us straightened out.”

Tom developed a natural kinship with horses at an early age. At least to Tom the kinship seemed natural. Others of us might regard it as closer to supernatural. Tom could read a horse’s mind. At a clinic in Elko, a man was leading a horse down the arena toward Tom. To my eye, the horse was just walking along behind. I’d have hardly noticed if Tom hadn’t begun asking the man questions. “Does this horse…?” “Yes,” the man answered. After the four or five “does he do” questions, all with affirmative answers, the man had to pause and think about the next question. “Yes, I guess he does.” That Tom could learn so much about a horse that is simply walking down an arena, still seems incredible to me.

Bill and Tom at Mt. Toro Ranch, Salinas 1995. Photo by Heather Hafleigh.
Bill and Tom at Mt. Toro Ranch, Salinas 1995. Photo by Heather Hafleigh.

From the start, a horse would do anything within its power to do what Tom wanted. At times he could and did become the horse in an important sense. He could see out their eyes and feel with their feet. I am giving this to you as a conclusion because there isn’t enough space here to do otherwise. I wrote an article that has been published several times called “The Magic of Tom Dorrance” in which I made a more complete explanation of the phenomena. When Tom read it, he didn’t ask me to change a word. This extra insight gave Tom a whole new perspective with which to read any horse. I suspect that as a young man Tom didn’t understand that other people saw horses different. When he realized he had a vision other people didn’t, he faced a near impossibility in trying to communicate what he knew to other people. It was something akin to trying to explain sound to a deaf person—you might be able to teach them to feel vibrations with their fingers but it is a far cry from actually hearing. In his acceptance speech at the Cowboy Hall of Fame, Tom said, “I don’t know what is was about me and the horse; I guess we just tried to be each other.” I took that as further confirmation of my thesis.

Where horses came easy and naturally to Tom, people didn’t. In a social sense, Tom was an extreme example of a late developer. He stayed at home and ran his parents’ ranch until after they died. He was fifty and still unmarried when the ranch sold and he set out to see a wider scope of the world. He traveled around, working on various ranches as the spirit moved him, sometimes breaking horses, sometimes doing other things. Bryan Neubert, another great horseman, worked with Tom on a ranch in Nevada. He told me that Tom was the shyest man he’d ever met. As you probably know, big brandings are often a special time on ranches, involving help from neighbors and a communal meal where there is as much socializing and good humor as eating. When Tom went to brandings, he would sometimes take his own lunch so that he could slip out the back gate and eat by himself.

In 1964, Tom spent a couple of weeks breaking horses at the Flying D Ranch in Montana. The cowboys were awestruck by what he could do with a horse. But, years later, when I asked Sam Spring why none of them learned much of anything about horses from Tom, he said, “Well, Tom didn’t talk about horses much and he kind of kept to himself. He helped Chuck some.” Chuck Spring was fourteen at the time and probably more curious and less inhibited by Tom’s standoffishness than the other cowboys. I suspect that a “kid” was easier for Tom to talk to as well.
In 1966, when Tom finally married, he chose well. Margaret became one of the pillars of his life.

Mike Beck, who had stayed with Bill Dorrance and knew Tom well, told about an instance when someone got angry with Tom at a clinic. Tom climbed back into his shell and avoided people for a long time afterward. This would match the personality traits often associated with creativity. Creative people tend to be very sensitive and are easily hurt by unkind words or rejection.

Although I met Tom briefly when he was sixty-something, I didn’t really get to know him until he was in his late seventies. After my first visit with Tom, I was telling Mike Beck about all the neat things we had done. He was amazed. “Boy, Tom must like you.” I’d like to think that was at least partly true but in reality, I happened to seek Tom out about the time that he learned the next steps in that social dance that we all do with each other. On that visit, his wife, Margaret, had told me, “Tom has changed!” I didn’t realize exactly what she meant at the time. When I was there, Tom held a one-day problem-solving clinic. Tom seemed perfectly at ease with people—he even let women hug him—but apparently it was all something new. Later, when I mentioned to him how much I appreciated how tactful he was with his students and how smooth everything at the clinic went, he replied, “I could always see the best in a horse. Since I’ve gotten older, I can usually see the best in people, too.”

Tom continued to learn and create and grow both as a horseman and as a person all his life. He accomplished so much after age fifty and even after age eighty that I find hope for all of us.

As near as I could tell, time meant nothing to Tom—at least when he was working with a horse. The fact that he could do things so quick with horses was an accidental by-product of his talent. Although I’m sure he liked being able to get a lot done, “fast” was not something he even considered. In fact, he often said, “The slow way is sometimes the quickest way to get there.” When he saddled that unbroke horse at the Flying D branding, I’m sure he never once hurried. As he worked with the horse, his entire focus would have been on the horse and its needs. If there had been difficulties, he’d have taken whatever time he needed to take care of the horse and it would not have mattered whether or not he got back to the branding in time to rope. Tom worked fast and efficiently but he did all the things it took to keep the horse out of trouble and to ultimately get himself and the horse to where they needed to be together. Sometimes when I’m working with a horse, it may take me a month to accomplish something that Tom could have taken care of in a few minutes, but whenever I get where I want to go with an untroubled horse, I’m sure Tom would be pleased.

Tom offering some suggestions at a clinic in Erie, Colorado, in 1996. Photo by Mindy Bower.
Tom offering some suggestions at a clinic in Erie, Colorado, in 1996. Photo by Mindy Bower.

When Tom was helping someone work with a horse, everybody might be working pretty serious for a while, and then Tom would say, “Let’s take a breather.” The horse, the rider and Tom would relax for a few minutes and then start back at their project. Most of the time, at the new beginning, the horse and rider would discover that they were past whatever the problem was. The break itself had solved the problem. Bryan Neubert told me about a former rodeo bronc that someone had brought to one of Tom’s clinics. They had made great strides with the horse and near the end of the clinic the owner asked for help teaching him to load into a two-horse trailer. Bryan took the halter rope and Tom gave instructions—none of which involved force. For ten or fifteen minutes, Bryan attempted to do everything Tom suggested. Bryan said that he got about as much response from the horse as he would have tugging on a log. The horse showed no interest in loading. Tom then suggested that they give him a breather and asked a teenage girl to lead him over to a small patch of grass and let him graze. They worked on another project and it was twenty minutes or a half-hour later when they retrieved the bronc. “I led him up to the trailer,” Bryan says, “and he didn’t even hesitate. He just got right in.” It is hard to have the patience to use this technique, but it is about as simple to learn as anything that Tom had to offer and can be highly effective.

Tom disliked discord of any kind. He wanted people to get along with horses. He wanted horses to have reason to trust people. He wanted people to get along with each other. He had a strong bias in favor of harmony. I think this is one of his lessons to us all. This trait could sometimes be counter-productive when you asked him for help with a horse—I say this with a smile. As Tom was directing you, he could and sometimes would keep you doing interesting things while at the same time keeping you completely out of trouble. Looking back at a couple of those times, I’m sure that if I’d understood, this was his way of telling me that we weren’t ready for what I wanted to do. However, in my impatience, I also found that if you plunged ahead and got into trouble, he would help you work your way out of it.

Tom wanted the horse and the human to have a mutually beneficial relationship where each could trust the other to be aware of its needs. When the human wants something from the horse, Tom wanted him to ask nicely (and certainly never demand). He wanted the human to present himself and his request to the horse in a way that the horse could understand and respond to appropriately. This means that the human needs to understand the horse enough to ask only for what the horse is prepared to do. It is all right for the human to ask of the horse anything that the horse is capable of doing. BUT, it is the human’s responsibility to prepare the horse so that he can be ready to do whatever he is going to be asked to do.

A few years ago, Tom helped me teach a young stud to be a gentleman so that I could ride him in public places. In addition to the other problems, the horse always resisted slightly when I bridled him. I had to use my thumb to pry his mouth open enough to slip the snaffle between his teeth. Tom no doubt noticed this problem the first evening, but never mentioned it until the third morning when he suggested that we work on the bitting problem.
We confined the horse in a narrow space. Tom directed me through a series of exercises to encourage him to open his mouth at my suggestion. I held the horse’s head in my arms and between my arms and my body. Sometimes when he resisted more vigorously, I had to hang on real hard. When he became agitated, I tried to calm him by petting softly. During one of the episodes when I was petting, Tom said, “Your hands are too hard.”

I had been stroking him very lightly and replied, “I’m touching him a soft as I can.”

Tom and Margaret at one of Tom's clinics.
Tom and Margaret at one of Tom’s clinics. Photo by Heather Hafleigh.

Tom looked at me and, I suspect, struggled to keep from exhibiting frustration, then after a few seconds he tapped his chest with the ends of his curled fingers, and said very quietly, “It comes from the heart.” He spoke in a lower voice than he had before and conveyed strong emotion. It was a strangely intimate moment—almost embarrassingly so. It was as if I had forced him to open his soul to me so that I could see something so fundamentally important that I should have known it already.

I stopped and for a few seconds I thought about the horse and how much I liked him. When my intentions became good, my hands changed—they softened. Although I had been touching the horse very lightly, my fingers had been rigid—it had been as if I had been trying to comfort Buddy by touching him lightly with a board. When the tension went out of my fingers, my touch became both light and soft. And, I have no doubt that my shoulders and back softened too. My horse certainly did. In a few minutes he took the bit perfectly.
Because the horse had struggled hard enough to approach the limits of my ability to hang on, I’d had to tighten up and go into a competitive mode. For a moment, it might have been appropriate, but when the horse was ready to quit fighting, I stayed stuck in what had become an unsuitable emotional state.

“It comes from the heart.” Yes, Tom, you were right. It applies to so many things besides horses.

At a clinic in Thermal, California, Tom was sitting near the arena fence on a small set of bleachers. Although the arena was large and there were horses in nearby paddocks, I noticed that even the first day, whenever the horses loose in the arena had a choice, they tended to gather close to the fence near Tom. I can relate to those horses. I liked to be near Tom. He seemed to exude goodness. He gave me hope and energy. There was a kind of genuine simplicity about him that let you know that he always had both feet firmly on the ground.

For a while, late in life, Tom did a series of small clinics in central California. Many of the same people attended all that they could get to. Tom mentioned to me once that yes, lots of people came to his clinics, but they didn’t pay much attention and spent most of the time visiting with other people. He didn’t think they got much out of it. I’m sure they got a lot out of the clinics or they would not have kept coming back. Tom was helping people with horses and I don’t think he ever realized that a large portion of his audience wanted to be near him as much or more than they wanted to learn about horsemanship.

I see Tom as more than a horseman. I see him as a kind of holy-man, not somebody divine, but a type of earthly shaman, a man who knew the great truths of life and the universe in ways that the rest of us cannot. Horses and horsemanship were Tom’s metaphor through which he did his best to enlighten us to larger truths. Although I tried not to show it too much, I always felt both humble and reverent when I was around him. I’m pretty sure that I will visit Joseph, Oregon, as a kind of pilgrimage because Tom Dorrance was born there.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.13

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